I love my first generation iPad. It is my e-reader of choice and a perfect couch computer. I check email, arrange travel, play games, go to websites… I understand why Apple has sold millions of these devices.
But what I don’t understand is the headlong rush to adopt iPads in schools. Everywhere I turn I read about elementary and middle schools (not so many high schools) creating 1-1 iPad programs or running iPad pilot projects. I fear that we may undue years of progress in educational technology in the pursuit of short term gains.
The iPad was first released to the U.S. market in April of 2010, only two years ago. Soon thereafter, I posted an article detailing some of the shortcomings I saw with the initial product release. Most of these problems remain, and will likely not be addressed because the iPad requires an entirely different mindset about how electronic devices are used in schools.
While most everyone agrees that the iPad is designed as an individual device, some educational technologists keep trying to manage the iPad as if it is a laptop or desktop computer:
- centralized disk imaging and application management,
- content filtering, and
- no administrative rights for users.
Educational technology listservs abound with tips and tricks for workarounds to allow schools to impose management systems on a device not designed to be controlled by anyone other than an individual user. Not only do I consider this a waste of time and effort, but a move away from teaching students how to be responsible consumers and producers of content, and wise managers of devices and personal time.
If iPad enthusiasts aren’t talking about management options, they’re talking about apps. Developers feed consumers a seemingly endless stream of new creations that do very cool and useful things, and teachers in iPad classrooms I have spoken with talk about how hard it is to keep up with the deluge of new apps. “Teaching to the App” was a problem before the introduction of the iPad, something I detailed in an article in 2009:
[Teaching to the app results in lessons plans that include such things as:]
- how to set margins, create footnotes, track changes, add comments, and so on in Word
- creating formulas and charts in Excel
- making an iMovie
- recording a podcast in GarageBand
- editing photos in Photoshop
- making presentations with PowerPoint
In the above cases, a specific tool and one’s ability to use it is more important than the underlying job that the tool is helping you accomplish. It’s like saying that the hammer is more important than the nail that hangs the picture on the wall. But, of course, there are numerous ways to hang the picture on the wall. If the goal is getting the picture on the wall rather than teaching how to hammer, then one must allow more more than one approach, more than one tool.
If we were to take the list of applications mentioned above, it would be easy to recast them in broader terms, focusing on skills instead of tools:
- word processing
- spreadsheets and graphing
- photo editing
All one needs to do now is to substitute the names of popular computer applications with their iOS counterparts to see that the same situation is occurring in iPad schools. Rather than teach students how to use an application, we should instead focus on what students make, encouraging diverse ways of accomplishing an end. Who wants to visit a school classroom where all of the children have posted their drawing of the same damn tree? It’s far more more exciting and educational to see a breadth of interpretation and inspiration!
But, of course, the whole app thing is also ensnared in how to manage the device. The Apple store really likes individual accounts and credit cards. Clever schools are working around this in various ways, but again the need to do this demonstrates the pervasiveness of old-school, control-based mental models to a device that is meant for a different mindset.
Form Factor, Peripherals, and Hidden Costs
Where the iPad and other touch screen devices shine is in the user-interface (UI) and the form factor designed for young learners with small hands who are still developing fine motor skills.
The UI of gestures within iOS is very intuitive, and despite Apple’s attempts to patent such gestures, they are so obvious that they are being copied into devices made by other companies. While the broken U.S. Patent Office muddles through the legal stuff, more and more people will expect touch screens to act like an iPad. This is just fine with me.
iPads are lightweight and easily maneuvered by children and adults alike, the retina displays are so named because they allegedly project so many pixels that higher resolution would be wasted on the human eye, and the small on screen keyboard is perfect for little fingers.
And yet, consider the list of peripherals that schools often purchase to augment an iPad program:
- external Bluetooth keyboards
- protective covers and cases to prevent damage should the device be dropped or stepped on
- styluses (styli?) to use instead of or in addition to fingers
- a video adapter to allow the iPad to be connected to a larger screen or projector
Teachers report that students appear to be more engaged in the classroom while using an iPad. This is hardly surprising.
I wrote about boredom and student engagement in a three part series last year. In part 3 of the series, I quoted from a research study on student engagement, in which the authors concluded that:
Students reported being least excited/engaged about instructional methods in which they do not play an active role: “Teacher Lecture” was rated as to some degree or very much exciting/engaging by only 26% of respondents, while 44% of the respondents rated this instructional method as not at all exciting/engaging.
Increasing student engagement is a matter of getting students more active. Of course an iPad will do that. So will a hamster.
Engagement happens when authentic learning is taking place. It is important that teachers be able to distinguish between the appearance of engagement associated with novelty, and genuine engagement associated with active learning.
What’s the Point?
I probably should have started with this, but it was only after writing that I realized the important question for iPad adopters is to ask themselves “What’s the point? What is the value-add? What are we trying to accomplish with an iPad program?”
I’ve heard lots of responses.
- the iPad is lightweight, and coupled with e-books, this will result in less weight in students backpacks.
- okay, but e-books are not really readily except as lame PDFs or other relatively static formats, and any e-reader would do for those. I’m all for lightening backpacks and getting better textbooks. Textbooks – electronic or otherwise – constrain innovation.
- we can save money by using iPads instead of laptops.
- maybe, but you can get a netbook for about the same money, and for a bit more a MacBook Air
- The form factor favors smaller hands.
- Yep, it does. But those hands get larger (starting in middle school) and the form factor inhibits long periods of text writing, and in the absence of a stylus, precision artwork. Dual screens are needed for serious video editing at the middle school and high school levels, as is additional memory, bandwidth, and processor speed. Never send an iPad to do what a Mac Pro should do.
- Gestures are intuitive
- Yes they are. This is why Apple is starting to embed gestures into the OS for its line of computers, promoting trackpads, and making the surface of the mouse respond to gestures. Wait until the MacBook Air is released with a touch screen! Meanwhile, laptop users can use something like a WACOM tablet to get the benefits of gestures in art programs without sacrificing precision.
- Teachers who have never used technology will use an iPad
- <snarky comment> Where have these people been for the past thirty years? Asking a teacher to enter the classroom without technology at their disposal would be like asking a surgeon to operate without a scalpel. I’m sorry, but if Mr. (or Mrs./Ms.) Scroggy is afraid of computers than she has no place in today’s classroom.</snarky commment>
- iPads lay flat on the table and don’t put a barrier between people like a laptop does.
- True enough. And that’s great if the type of work being done lends itself to a device that should be flat when being used. And yet you would not want to type that way for very long (a screen at eye level is preferred) which brings us back to the external keyboard and now a stand for the iPad. But I agree that laptop screens can and do represent a barrier both visually and psychologically which is why I urger laptop makers to make the screen pivot on a hinge so it can go up and down as needed. Oh wait, I think they already do that. Doh!
- iPads are great note taking devices. I know this because that is that the majority of students who use iPads report doing with them.
- If the majority of use of an iPad is going to be note taking, you have a different problem. You might as well continue to use paper and pencil since the value add is marginal.